Here’s something you don’t see every day. In a 15-minute video posted on YouTube in 2019, a cow elk seemingly hunts and kills a gosling.  The video, dubbed “Elk Eats Baby Goose,” begins with the elk cavorting along the bank of a small pond, chasing a red-winged blackbird. 

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Later in the video, around the five-minute mark, the elk notices a pair of adult geese with six days-old goslings in an open field yards from the pond, and it makes a beeline for the geese. At first, the birds seem unconcerned. But as the cow closes in, it changes its trajectory to track the geese when they try to move out of its way. The adult geese react defensively. One repeatedly flies at the elk, chasing it into the pond. But eventually, both geese end up in the water, leaving an opening for the elk to move in on the goslings back on land. It soon grabs one in its teeth and gnaws on it for several minutes. See it for yourself below. 

An Expert Tries to Break Down the Strange Incident. 

Andy Holland, the statewide big game coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), has been a wildlife biologist for 21 years. He says the elk’s behavior is rare but doesn’t think it’s really hunting. “I think it’s something other than predatory behavior, but I can’t explain what it is,” Holland says. He estimates the elk is either a yearling or a two-year-old. “This is very strange and unusual behavior. I’ve never seen anything like it and I really don’t have an explanation.”

It’s not unheard of for ruminants to eat birds. Between 1996 and 1999, Pam Pietz and Diane Granfors, biologists at the U.S. Geological Service Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota, used miniature cameras to monitor the depredation of songbird nests. They filmed whitetail deer eating songbird chicks on four occasions. It was considered the first documentation of deer actively pursuing prey.

Holland says he’s not familiar with that or any other study showing that ruminants eat meat, and if it does happen occasionally, it’s not a significant part of their diet: “I’m pretty solidly in the herbivore camp for elk,” he says. In this case, he points out, the evidence is inconclusive.

“I’m not going to say [the elk] wasn’t trying to eat [the gosling], because it kind of looked like it did. But it could have just been out of curiosity as much as anything. I think clearly if this was a predatory elk, she would’ve eaten the gosling,” he says. “I watched the video really carefully and did not see her actually eat it. I think at some point she just loses interest.”

There’s nothing apparently wrong with the elk’s physical condition that would explain its behavior, nor does she appear to be protecting a calf. An informal survey of big game researchers and managers in the CPW office produced no theories. “I would just say there’s a lot of things in nature that we don’t understand, and I’ll put this one in that category of unexplained observations.”

As to whether the behavior is simply play or something else, Holland has a firmer opinion, but still no definite answers. “The cow acted a little playful with the red-winged blackbird when it was buzzing her, but she didn’t act very playful with the geese. That looked pretty serious to me,” he says. “But again, I don’t understand why that interaction occurred.” 

It’s safe to say the geese didn’t understand either. Though they eventually herded five of the six goslings into the pond and out of the elk’s reach, they clearly didn’t judge it a threat until it was too late. “This is not normal behavior, and I think the geese were as surprised as me that the elk is acting this way,” Holland says.